Why can Chinese people read Chinese texts up to 2,000 years old while English-speakers can only read English texts up to 500 years old?





Michał Pietrusiński

Because the writing systems are constructed around different philosophies, although it is just as huge an overstatement to say that an English speaker can access 500 year old texts, as it is to say that a Chinese speaker readily understands the texts written 2,000 years ago. The older the texts, the less accessible will its content be, regardless of the writing system, as people, cultures, fashions and customs change and there is always a need to write something new about something new in a new way.





Yugan Talovich

Chinese who can read standard (traditional) characters can read texts 2,000 years old because the characters have remained constant. With simplified characters it’s probably more difficult.


To read earlier texts, you read Classical Chinese, not modern spoken Mandarin. It can be a little difficult, but not overly difficult if you slow down and think about what the words mean. I have walked elementary school students here in Taiwan through such works as 桃花源記 (the Plum Blossom Spring, written about 420 ce) and 司馬豹治鄴 (a wonderful story about fighting superstition, from about 500 bce). I have the kids read through them and explain to me what they say; if they get stuck, I hint. Reasonably bright elementary school kids can figure out such essays. I have even taken elementary school children through bronze inscriptions; I have to choose the inscriptions and give them more hints about the characters, and some characters I have to explain outright, but we have read inscriptions dating back to about 1000 bce, and have even done some easy oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty, say 1200 bce.


Once when I was in a museum, I noticed that a little boy maybe ten years old was reading the inscription on the back of a statue of the Buddha with no difficulty. It was pretty easy, just names, dates, and some nice ideas about Buddha, but the statue dated to around 300 ce. I think that continuity is pretty impressive.

This is one of the reasons I am so fascinated by Chinese writing.



But English is my native language, and I taught English for TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT for decades. I read Shakespeare only with difficulty, because he wrote for the people speaking 400 years ago, and speech changes very quickly. I love Macbeth, but have trouble with some of the passages.





Ethelbert Reitheriences

Chinese or Chonorese is pictographic/ideogrammic script, which never changes its meaning, no matter how much time passes. We can even read things as old as 25000 BCE. As long as the exact pictogram or linear script is drawn, the meaning is the same. Whereas alphabetic scripts like Roman alphabet for English, have to change with evolving pronunciation. Pronunciation may vary with space, like Scots and other English dialects, but they also vary with time, modern American/modern standard English is very different from the pronunciation and rustic vocabulary of Shakespeare and Chaucer. For instance, words like electricity/electronic, aircraft, computers and robotics are strictly modern, unknown in the times not only of Shakespeare but someone as late as Wordsworth and Keats. Whereas electricity was known in ancient China/Choncor/Chongkok/Tiongkok in the form of lightning and magnetic compasses, so by adding an electrical sign, or 电 modern meanings can be created in Chonorese as in diannao or electronic brain to mean computer.





Douglas Black

English as a language didn’t exst 2000 years ago.

The languages in Great Britain and Ireland at that time would have been Brittonic which became Welsh (and a few others), Pictish and ancient Irish, all of which are to put it mildly a tad difficult. Add into that Latin from the Romans.

Anywhere else English is established nowadays would have used local indigenous languages such as in North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Zealand.




English has changed considerably since the first Jutes, Saxons and Angles came to what became England and created it. Only after the addition of French would it be considered understandable to modern audiences but even then words die out or their meanings change and new ones come in.

Chinese characters will be more or less the same ones from 2000 years ago but like all the Chinese languages would be pronounced differently.






Susan Lopez

The sounds of words (e.g., typical of English spelling efforts) are subject to more rapid change, than are the semantic representations of Chinese (characters that are mostly meaning-based). The sounds of English have and will change a lot over time.





司馬 刑

I found a table using the Swadesh list as a reference to compare the differences between ancient and modern Chinese. It can be seen that in more than 80% of Chinese, ancient and modern have the same meaning or similar meanings.


Since Chinese is an ideographic character, not a phonetic character, even if the tone changes, the meaning of the characters is still the same or similar. Since the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) in China unified writing, most characters have fixed appearance and meaning


This allows users of Chinese characters to easily disassemble and combine various Chinese characters, and ensure that the meaning will not deviate too far.





Paul Wang

I am a native Chinese speaker with more than 20 years of academic education in China. If there were anyone said that he or she reads classical-style Chinese text up to 2,000 years old, then they do not do better than me. But the fact is that what I read is actually the explanation of the old books by some people who are about 20 to 60 years older than me, such as my parents and my teachers. This is quite similar to that I can read German and Russian if someone translated it into modern Chinese. To my knowledge, most of the Chinese characters from the old times are no longer used in today’s communications. Even the professionals need to GUESS the meaning of the mystery symbols. After their digest, the students recite their explanation and pretend they can understand the text from 2,000 years ago. That’s it.





Cult of Linguists

Why can Chinese people read Chinese texts up to 2,000 years old while English-speakers can only read English texts up to 500 years old?

The difference in writing systems.



Chinese has been written using a logographic system for almost 3,500 years; this system is entirely agnostic about how the words encoded are to be pronounced, so much so that languages unrelated to the Chinese family also use it. Thus, a person familiar with the writing system can read texts in whatever language they choose. Minimal grammatical information is required.


English, on the other hand, is written in a way which very much encodes both pronunciation and grammar. This fact combines with the fact that languages change over time, so that texts from more than 500 years ago appear to the uninitiated as though they were written in a different language.





Cult of Linguists

This is another commonly held misconception.


Contemporary Chinese speakers can't read Old Chinese; it was a completely different language. The grammar is different, and the uses and meanings of enough words (and characters) have changed enough that you get an effect that you'd get if an English speaker tried to read French: A lot of the elements sort of look familiar, but you have no idea what the text says (except fixed expressions still in use and the occasional fortuitous correspondence.


When you see “HORS SERVICE” written on a sign in French, you may be tempted to bring your steed in for a quick tune-up, but, if you do, any French people present will blow a puff of Gitanes smoke in your face and say, “Non, non, non.”

当你看到用法语写着“HORS SERVICE”的牌子时,你可能会忍不住把马牵过来,但如果你真的这样做,所有法国人都会朝你脸上喷口烟,高呼:“不,不,不。”




Jiaquan Huo

99.99% of Chinese cannot read this piece of 2000 year old text.



I personally can only pick up a few characters and phrases.






Chinese culture is ancient. It is 5 thousand years old. That is why speakers of European Latin-based languages have trouble with learning very ancient characters.





Nicholas Stanway

Not all Chinese.

Remember that in the PRC everyone learns the simplified 20th century version of Chinese and would struggle with traditional characters, there are also old characters that people who read traditional characters would struggle with because they aren't in general use.




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